Before Tim Armstrong launched Patch, jumped from Google to AOL, bought it from his own investment group and expanded it across the nation, he ignored early advice suggesting that the hyperlocal’s one-journalist-per-town model would not work.
Quinnipiac University journalism professor Rich Hanley says he was asked to help with a secret “beta test” of Patch in Hamden, Connecticut, prior to its later public launch in three New Jersey communities.
Patch paid Quinnipiac students to test whether one full-time journalist could provide all the content necessary to make a hyperlocal website about the community viable.
The answer they gave – “No” – was not what Patch wanted to hear. Hanley said that their test in Hamden found the town to be too diverse, too complicated, too time-consuming for one person to handle.
Patch pushed forward with the model anyway, but used the findings, at least initially, to shape the types of communities it chose for sites. They looked for towns with a defined downtown core, high average household income, and significant digital literacy. That is, communities that were not particularly diverse, or complicated.
But after AOL took over and took Patch from three sites to more than 900 in about 18 months, Hanley said, not as much thought or rigidity, at least, went in to selecting communities.
They had a great, easy-to-use hyperlocal web platform, and were “blinded by the ease with which you can replicate digital stuff.”
“They thought they could just press a button,” Hanley said, pluck someone from a local journalism school, and have a site that would be meaningful to the community.
The clearest sign that the advice didn’t sink in, perhaps, was that one of those 900 sites ended up being a Hamden, Connecticut, Patch, staffed with the one-journalist-per-town model that Hanley and his students said wouldn’t work there.
Speaking at a Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association conference Thursday, Hanley said he did not accept money as an early Patch advisor, in part, so he’d be “free to criticize them” down the road.
Hanley said Patch expanded too fast, and without a solid plan for local advertising sales. “The second flaw was they didn’t promote the sites enough,” he said, wondering why they didn’t do things like sponsor the high school football field scoreboards in Patch towns.
Some of the Quinnipiac grads who went to work for Patch have already left.
“They weren’t learning anything on the job,” Hanley said. “They weren’t getting better. They were just burning out.”
That’s where the benefit of working in a traditional newspaper or TV newsroom comes into play, Hanley said.
“You’ve got to have quality assurance. In a newspaper, it’s the copy desk,” Hanley said. “You’ve got to have another set of eyeballs on the content before it’s posted.”
Former Hartford Courant Managing Editor Claude Albert wonders why Patch doesn’t leverage its journalists in Connecticut for “a higher aim.” If he had 80 reporters stationed around the state, Albert said, all kinds of ideas would come to mind in terms of enterprise, investigative reporting or deeper analysis of important topics.
University of Connecticut School of Journalism Dean Maureen Croteau said that the difference between Patch and many newspapers who often have less than one reporter covering a single town is that Patch editors are more in the mode of “feeding the site,” seven days a week, with everything from calendar items to breaking news.
Hanley said that they asked Patch management in the early days about their plans for investigative and enterprise reporting. They pointed to Google Map visualizations of police blotter and fire department call reports, and said “the rest would come later.”
“Think of Patch as a piece of software, because that’s what it is,” Hanley said. “And it shipped with a lot of bugs.”
Gary Farrugia, publisher of The Day in New London, said he was worried at first when Patch moved into his coverage area.
Then it ended up being “largely stenography instead of journalism, and it’s wildly inconsistent from town to town.”
But Farrugia is keeping a very close eye on it, because they have a good platform and it might be a matter of time before they or their successor figures out how to use it well.
“I’m worried about what comes after them,” he said.